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North Korea sent trash balloons to South Korea. Activists are sending balloons back with K-pop and K-dramas

By Yoonjung Seo, Jessie Yeung and Manveena Suri, CNN

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) — South Korean activists sent balloons carrying K-pop and K-dramas on USB sticks to their northern neighbor on Thursday, days after North Korean balloons of trash and “filth” floated in the opposite direction.

The activist group Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK) released the giant balloons in the early hours of Thursday morning, with videos showing them floating away, some dragging giant posters visible from afar while others carried smaller plastic packages.

Inside the packages were 200,000 leaflets condemning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, 5,000 USB sticks containing South Korean music videos and television shows, and 2,000 one dollar bills, according to FFNK.

Groups such as FFNK have been sending these kinds of balloons for years, carrying items prohibited in the isolated totalitarian dictatorship – including food, medicine, radios, propaganda leaflets and pieces of South Korean news.

In May, North Korea responded by sending its own giant balloons back south – containing trash, soil, pieces of paper and plastic, and what South Korean authorities described as “filth.”

Pyongyang claimed to have sent a total of 3,500 balloons carrying 15 tonnes of trash to its neighbor, according to state media KCNA, citing North Korea’s Vice Defense Minister Kim Kang Il.

Those balloons began landing in the South last week, temporarily disrupting flights and prompting authorities to warn residents to stay indoors. As of Monday, the South Korean military had found about 1,000 balloons.

South Korean activists say they will continue to send the balloons north – even though doing so was banned by the government years ago.

FFNK leader Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector who fled to the South years ago, described the materials they sent as “letters of truth and freedom.”

As a young man in North Korea, these balloons had offered him a rare glimpse into the outside world, he said. He recalled being in a public square in 1992 when “I heard a huge balloon in the sky.”

“This round thing suddenly popped with a loud bang, then leaflets fell from the sky. I knew I wasn’t supposed to look at those things, so I put one in my pocket and went to the bathroom to check it out,” he said.

The leaflet he pocketed contained stories about North Korean defectors and their escapes, some of whom had crossed into China before heading toward South Korea.

Eight years later, Park fled the North – arriving in South Korea in 2000, and beginning his mission to send balloons across the border in 2006.

The leaflets he sends carry information about the Kim family, including the assassination of the leader’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam — as well as booklets about South Korea’s economic and political development, including photos of the main Seoul airport and the country’s fighter jets.

“South Korea is not an American colony or a wasteland of humanity like I learned in North Korea,” he told CNN on Wednesday. “We sent money, medicine, facts, truth, and love, but to send filth and trash in return? That’s an inhumane and barbaric act.”

Meanwhile, some South Korean residents living near the border are now on edge.

“I lived through the Korean War and other difficulties, and I was worried … What if we have another war?” said 84-year-old Song Kwang-ja, a resident of Yongin city, on Thursday.

“That reminded me of the old days. I still get goosebumps thinking and talking about it,” she said, adding that the balloons “felt like a childish prank.”

The incident has also worsened strained relations between the two countries. South Korea announced this week it would resume “all military activities” near the demarcation line – suspending a 2018 agreement signed by both nations at a brief time of relatively warm relations.

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